It was a full house at the La Porte City Community Center Monday night, as more than 80 people, including area residents, members of the La Porte City Police Department and Black Hawk County Sheriff Tony Thompson, had one overriding concern on their mind- public safety. Many in the audience chose to attend the regular meeting of the La Porte City City Council to learn more about Mayor Dave Neil’s proposal to make cuts to the La Porte City Police Department, in an effort to invest more resources in the city’s infrastructure.
Before opening the floor for comments from the public, Neil summarized his goals in a brief statement.
“La Porte City is an old city. We have a lot of deteriorating infrastructure that needs to be dealt with. When you look around and start to marshall your resources, you’ve only got so much money. Our tax rate, millage rate, is one of the highest in the county. One department is using 40% of the tax revenue you get in one year. You’ve got to look at better, more cost-effective ways to do those jobs. When I look around at cities our size, I see a lot of them doing it [public safety] for a lot less money than we’re doing it. So that’s why I looked at the police department first. Are there other area we need to look at? Most definitely. We need to look around at every city we can and find the best practices we can to find the most cost-effective ways of doing business,” he said.
When the discussion shifted to what kind of law enforcement support area residents could expect to get from the Black Hawk County Sheriff’s Office, Sheriff Tony Thompson addressed the room saying, “Every cut you make is going to have a dramatic impact on the amount of coverage that you’ve got, the amount of response you’ve got.”
He went on to explain the limitations that currently dictate the amount of support and response times his deputies can provide La Porte City, absent a contract between the city and his office.
“We have a minimum of three and a maximum of five deputies in the county at any one time. What you’re talking about is an ad-hoc response with no funding. That means I can’t additionally staff [to meet the] needs [of your community].
“Right now, your taxes go to back up your officers. Nearly every arrest made by the La Porte City Police Department has a deputy backing them up, because it’s unwise to make an arrest by yourself. I cannot guarantee you that deputy [called during an emergency] is going to be there[respond] in 10 minutes.
“It’s only fair and equitable to say this right up front so you know exactly what my capabilities are and what my budget binds me to. I don’t have the ability to cover La Porte City without a contract,” he stated.
“Right now you’ve got a law enforcement agency. You’ve got a municipality that is able to support a police department. The county cannot support your policing agency. Not that way. We don’t have the staff to do it. I don’t have the budget to do it.”
“Knowing that we have a $200 million shortfall in tax valuation from the county, there’s no way I can go back to the Board of Supervisors and say ‘Give me five more deputies to staff against La Porte City.’ That will not happen.”
In addition to concerns about longer response times, several individuals spoke about the impact cuts in the police department could have on emergency responders. Robert Burkgren, who has served area residents for more than 30 years as a member of La Porte City Fire/Rescue, noted the presence of law enforcement at the scene they’re called to allows fire and ambulance crews to focus on their duties, knowing they have an officer on-site to maintain order and ensure their safety.
After listening to citizens’ comments for about an hour, one of the City’s newest council members, Eric Allsup, shared some of the information he had gathered related the issue. Allsup works for the Waterloo Fire/Rescue as a paramedic and has been appointed by Mayor Neil to serve as the Council’s chairperson of the Public Safety Committee. He noted that reducing the current number of full-time police officers from four to three would result in a savings of about $70,000, well short of Mayor Neil’s goal of reinvesting $150,000 in the city’s infrastructure. Regarding the police department, which is supported solely by tax dollars, he said, “Next year’s budget is going to be at what it has been or it’s going to be a little lower.”
Allsup invited Police Chief Larry Feaker to address decisions the police department made last year regarding the vehicles it maintains. Feaker reviewed how the leasing of a demo Chevrolet Tahoe model and purchase of another squad car last year will allow the department to lengthen its vehicle replacement rotation from every two years to every four years.
Allsup said he had spoken with previous La Porte City mayors, including Darrell Loveless, who recalled that the City had explored using officers on an on-call basis in 1983 and 1984. At that time, it was decided that the system did not result in any significant savings.
Allsup concluded his presentation by making a motion to maintain the current number of police officers on staff and keep 24-hour police coverage as part of the 2015 fiscal year budget the City Council is currently preparing. The motion, seconded by Todd Butler and unanimously approved by the Council, was met with hearty applause from those in attendance.